- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

KARBALA, Iraq — U.S. tanks, helicopters and jets attacked fighters loyal to a radical Shi’ite cleric in this holy city yesterday, partially destroying a mosque used by insurgents and setting seven hotels ablaze.

Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr urged his followers to resist and compared their struggle to the Vietnam War in his first news conference since the standoff began more than a month ago.

American forces killed 22 militants, and six coalition soldiers were wounded, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said in Baghdad. Four of the soldiers returned to duty.

Iraqi leaders in another holy city, Najaf, discussed how to resolve peacefully the confrontation between Sheik al-Sadr and the U.S.-led coalition, which is seeking to arrest him in connection with the murder of a rival cleric. Coalition officials have said that they welcome efforts toward a peaceful solution but will not negotiate with Sheik al-Sadr and want him to face justice.

Half of the Mukhaiyam mosque in Karbala was destroyed in the fighting. Most shops in Tal al-Zeinabiya, a central market, and three ambulances and two military vehicles also were destroyed.

Fighting subsided by dusk as the call for evening prayers spread across Karbala from loudspeakers at the Imam Hussein mosque, one of the most sacred shrines of the Shi’ite sect. Iraqi guards manned the shrine gates to prevent Sheik al-Sadr’s fighters from entering.

Explosions and machine-gun fire continued intermittently as night fell. Fighters pushed a wounded comrade down a street on a pushcart. Jets flew as militiamen took up new positions near another holy site, the Imam Abbas shrine.

Sheik al-Sadr’s fighters acknowledged that they had lost control of the Mukhaiyam mosque, less than a mile from the Imam Hussein shrine.

“We put up a very stiff resistance,” said Ameer Latif, a 30-year-old militiaman. Another fighter, Amar Haider, leaned against a wall with his Kalashnikov rifle and said: “God willing, we shall still be victorious.”

Late yesterday, three explosions resounded in Najaf, and residents said U.S. forces appeared to be making an incursion into the city. At least one civilian was killed and another was wounded, Iraqi authorities said.

Sheik al-Sadr is holed up in Najaf. He met with reporters there yesterday, staging his first press conference since his Mahdi’s Army militia began attacks on coalition troops in Baghdad and other cities in early April.

“I appeal to the fighters and mujahideen in Karbala to stand together so that none of our holy sites and cities are defiled. We are prepared for any American escalation and we expect one,” Sheik al-Sadr said.

“Let me remind you of Vietnam,” the young cleric said. “We are an Iraqi people that has faith in God, and his prophet and his family. The means of victory that are available to us are much more than what the Vietnamese had. And, God willing, we shall be victorious.”

Sheik al-Sadr also referred to the abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops at Saddam Hussein’s notorious Abu Ghraib Prison near Baghdad.

“Look at what they have done. Look at the torture they have committed against our detainees. Could anyone who came to rid us of Saddam do this?” he said.

The new U.S.-appointed governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, said he thought that his American backers will give another week to efforts to find a peaceful end to the standoff in the city.

“If you assess U.S. military movements in terms of territorial gains, then U.S. forces a week from now will enter certain areas of the city that will in turn make the prospect of a peaceful settlement very weak,” Mr. al-Zurufi said.

In Karbala, hundreds of Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims were trapped in hotels by the fighting. After one large explosion, Shi’ite militiamen chanted “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is Great,” apparently indicating that they had hit a coalition target.

Pilgrims, including women in black veils, peered from hotel windows, only to scramble back at the sound of gunfire. Rickety wooden market stalls were deserted. Men gathered on rooftops to watch the distant battles.

One militiaman fired two mortar shells, then picked up the firing tube and scampered away shouting: “I hate them, I hate them.”

A witness counted the bodies of 14 Iraqis on a main road, and said U.S. snipers were targeting anyone who moved in the streets, which were mostly empty.

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